Has the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. been skewed from the reality of who the activist was?
In 2016, the Washington Post reported that then -Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed decided to address the actions of a group of people protesting the killing of Philando Castille who planned on blocking off a highway. Reed stated that while he believed in the expressive rights of the protestors, he requested that they not block off freeways.
“The only thing I ask is that they not take the freeways,” Reed said. “Dr. King would never take a freeway.”
However, according to the Root, a notable example of Dr. King blocking the highway in the Selma to Montgomery march. This is not the first time that aspects of King’s legacy have been reframed. During the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 (according to the Huffington Post), Martin Luther King III stated via Twitter that his father believed “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and some respondents argued that they did not feel this aligned with King’s legacy.
“Your father was a brilliant man, but he wouldn’t condone the riots,” a commenter said. “He thought there was a better way to deal with the issues.”
The question is, why, despite the above evidence suggesting otherwise, would Reed believe that blocking off a freeway is something that King would not do? Why would people feel compelled to tell Kings son that his father would want “a better way to deal with the issues?”
The “Whitewashing” of Dr.King
According to Dr. Ed Gray, political columnist, radio host and Dallas Justice Initiative member, the “white washing” of King is due in part to the framing of Dr. King as an “American hero,” rather than as the Black activist he was originally known as.
“Since America has taken over the legacy of Dr. King and removed him from the black community and made him part of their pantheon of the great Americans that now litter the political landscape of Washington DC,” Gray said. “The Washington’s, the Jefferson’s-he stands alongside them with his monuments, then we begin to whitewash and then that’s when we begin to sanitize what he’s done.”
This sanitization of King can be seen in how we examine the quotes and writings of King. For instance, in King’s “Letter From A Birmingham jail,” he was openly critical of white moderates and their attempts to “set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” According to Al Jazeera, in his speech to the Poor Peoples campaign, King also stated that he did not hold faith in white people in power to advocate for justice the right way, stating “they’ll treat us like they did our Japanese brothers and sisters in World War II. They’ll throw us into concentration camps. The Wallaces and the Birchites will take over. The sick people and the fascists will be strengthened. They’ll cordon off the ghetto and issue passes for us to get in and out.” In an Essence article by Candace Benbow states that honing in on Kings sanitized messages of unity and love is less based in posthumous appreciation and more in an attempt to dodge guilt.
“The universal adoration of Dr. King can only be described as a willful decision to mischaracterize his person and work,” Benbow said. “Detaching Dr. King from his radical, socialist, left-leaning politics is the only way many Americans who now praise him can do so with (what they think is) a clear conscience.”
The Commercialization of Dr. King
Dr.Gray pointed to the MLK Jr. Day Parade, a commercialization and glorification of Dr.King’s legacy where a sale is made off of a day meant to commemorate him.
“America now has taken over the legacy of Dr.King and made it not part of the radical king, not part of the activist King,” Gray said. “It made him part of the commercialization King-something that Dr.King himself had disagreed with when he was alive.”
You can see this in a New York Times article from 2018, where both King’s aversion to commercialization and the blatant dismissal of it is highlighted. In a 2018 Super Bowl commercial for Ram Trucks, King’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech where he spoke about the desire to seek out recognition and how this can be achieved through a life of service rather than individualistic acts was used. King outright stated that to him, advertising can make you believe you need to participate in consumerism.
“They (advertisers/those working in advertising) have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love, you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff,” Dr. King said (via the New York Times).
Can we teach the “radical” Dr. King?
While Gray does believe that these details (his views on capitalism and white moderates) does need to be taught in school, he doubts that it ever will be, particularly in light of the push back against “Critical Race Theory,” an academic effort to examine the role of race and racism in society, according to the American Bar Association. However, the time has been commodified by figures like right wing commentator Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump, who have labeled it as racist. As of November according to the Brookings Institution, nine states including Texas have banned “Critical Race Theory.”
“If they’re [politicians] fighting against that then you know they’re going to fight against the radical king,” Gray said. “If they’re fighting against that, then you know they’re going to go ahead and pick a sanitized version of Dr. King.”
Texas’ Critical Race Theory bill was criticized for exactly this by Martin Luther King III when, according to the Texas Tribune, Sen. Bryan Hughes invoked the words of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in order to explain why he wanted the bill passed. However, the bill itself removes the required teaching of King in schools. Martin Luther King III stated that while it was believed that we judge people by their character and not their race, this requires society to be fair.
“Yes, we should judge people by the content of the character and not the color of their skin — but that is when we have a true, just, humane society where there are no biases, where there is no racism, where there is no discrimination,” King III said. “Unfortunately, all of these things still exist.”
Awareness Of His Radicalism
There does seem to be an awareness that what we learned in our textbooks may not be telling the full story of his legacy. Including Essence’ recent article, the Radical King by Cornel West, which was released in 2016 and (according to its description) examines aspects of King’s legacy such as his work against global imperialism and his views on the Vietnam war. Gray stated that more Americans are becoming aware of King’s legacy with the deeper delve into academic research.
“The vast majority of people have subscribed to the sanitization of Dr.King,” Gray said.
“Dr.King’s legacy has been more sanitized by white Americans than the Memphis Sanitation workers strike in 1968. So the ability of Americans to delve off into King now has been more into the academic realm more so than the vast amount of the American public.”
Maureen Costello, the director of the Teaching Tolerance, a project produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues that academics are why people may buy into a more monolithic vision King in the first place is due to how early on kids are shown his “I Have A Dream’ speech (as early as 1st and 2nd grade). However, according to Education Week, even King’s speech is not often taught in its entirety. Georgetown professor Marcia Chatelain stated that the more dynamic perspective on King is due to the growing academic study we’ve garnered about him.
“With the evolution of African-American history and more voices at the table of analysis, we have the opportunity to have a rich and nuanced understanding of King,” said Chatelain in 2018. “Including the things that made him so exceptional as well as his limitations, and to understand why making change in the world is so complicated and difficult.”
Continuing the Legacy of Dr.King
So, what can this generation of young activists do to continue the more ”radical” work of King? Gray stated that in order to honor the legacy of Dr. King, we have to continue to put in the work through organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the legal defense fund for the NAACP. Gray also encourages young activists to work towards visible change.
“The challenge to activists would be that they go forth and join these organizations and also exercise the right to ballots,” Gray said. “Get elected to city councils, to property improvement districts, homeowners associations and make an effective change. A grassroots change to effect change because the best change you can effect is when you can see it.”
How to mark this MLK Jr. Day
On December 15, 2021, CNN posted an article in which the King family asked that rather than celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with parades and banquets, people gather to advocate for voting rights legislation, specifically the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Voters act. They will be starting in Phoenix, Arizona on January 15, also travelling across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. King III stated that he wants Congress to solidify the voting rights his father fought for.
“President Biden and Congress used their political muscle to deliver a vital infrastructure deal, and now we are calling on them to do the same to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure,” King III said.